New year, new decade: unleashing the blockchain potential in ATM

Written by: Ian Cheung
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Impetus for change

As we embrace the turn of the new decade, the aviation industry, and in particular Air Traffic Management (ATM), is on the cusp of a paradigm shift. With much societal and technological change anticipated over the next 50 years, we recently posed the question 'what metamorphosis can we expect to see next?' as part of our White Paper 'Wanted: Airspace guardian of the future'. One clear conclusion is that ATM is entering an increasingly data-rich world, with ever more powerful data processing and analytical capability giving rise to a whole new data economy and ecosystem. But to what extent will ATM embrace the digital revolution?

Aviation is not known for its speedy uptake of new technology, but we are gradually seeing ATM and the wider aviation industry beginning to embrace the big data revolution. In my view, alongside terms such as 'machine-learning' and 'natural language processing' which are now commonplace in daily conversations and news articles, the ATM industry could take this big data revolution one step further – by embracing blockchain technology.

Writing this, I can already hear the cries from technology-sceptics who look back at the 2018 Bitcoin crash and the boom-bust uncertainty of the cryptocurrency market. Whilst there are inevitable challenges with introducing disruptive technologies, I expect the more innovative Air Navigation Service Providers (ANSPs), suppliers and IT, big data and tech companies to rise to the ATM blockchain buzz over the coming decade. What's more, political backing at EU-level is already in place – through the European Commission's 2017 Digital Single Market Strategy and the 2018 European Blockchain Partnership, supported by €1.5 billion co-funding under the Horizon 2020 programme.

Blockchain building blocks

Many of us might associate blockchain with cryptocurrencies, which first grabbed our attention a few years back with the rise of Bitcoin. Put simply, they are underpinned by blockchain technology which facilitates, verifies and stores transactions and contracts between several parties efficiently and securely without the need for a central entity having control of the network. The key qualities of this platform are that it is:

Blockchain benefits – initiatives from the travel industry

Data sharing is critical in any dynamic, networked and around-the-clock industry – the travel sector is no exception. Each actor is somewhat interconnected, and the data that is collected, processed and used is bound to be shared at some point during your journey for one reason or another. In my view, this is why the travel industry is well aligned to the multitude of capabilities offered by blockchain.

Take the airline sector. The benefits offered by blockchain such as decentralisation, data integrity, security, traceability and collaborative decision-making present a compelling business case for airline CTOs, with potential uses including:

  • Optimisation of loyalty programmes, through the real-time crediting of air miles into customer accounts. Some airline apps allow members to use their points almost instantly (e.g. Cathay Pacific).
  • Automation of processes and reduced use of paper-based systems (e.g. e-tickets, smart contracts, billing).
  • Optimisation of ground operations through collaborative decision-making.
  • Disintermediation of third parties. Several international airlines have recently partnered with Winding Tree to develop a blockchain that allows customers to access tickets from airlines directly to reduce the number of intermediaries.
  • Enhanced tracking, such as of luggage and the entire Maintenance, Repair, and Overhaul (MRO) lifecycle.
  • Increased security of sensitive information.

Is ATM missing a trick?

As we can see from the airline sector, the potential benefits offered by blockchain provide insights into how blockchain could be introduced more widely across the aviation industry. To date, I've rarely heard of blockchain being associated with ATM – but why not? Of course, blockchain is still a fairly new technology. For a relatively slow-moving industry like ATM, this means that gaining stakeholder buy-in and demonstrating the business and safety case (especially in such a tightly regulated and safety-critical industry) makes truly disruptive change unusual. The level of 'acceptable' decentralisation will also be a key question for some State-owned ANSPs.

Nevertheless, this is where I'd like to challenge the status quo and invite the more innovative ANSPs, suppliers and new entrants to (re)consider the potential that blockchain presents to ATM. Imagine a world of ATM where data is widely shared, nothing is hidden, yet everything is secure and trusted. Now look ahead to 2030, could blockchain help to unlock the much-anticipated cross-border sharing of ATM data as envisioned by the Airspace Architecture Study?

Building the blocks for ATM

During a session at the Helsinki Digital Transport Days back in October, I was struck by the many parallels between supply chain management and ATM. For example:

  • The end-to-end approach from the supplier upstream to the consumer downstream (i.e. the gate-to-gate approach in ATM, or the interaction between ANSP and airspace user);
  • The importance of collaborative data sharing between multiple stakeholders to enhance visibility of upstream events and to reduce fragmentation of the overall supply chain;
  • The need to drive cost and operational efficiencies for the benefit of the end-user (e.g. reducing the use of paper-based invoices and contracts which result in delays downstream); and,
  • The need to ensure secure and trusted data transfer.

Given these parallels, which areas of ATM would most likely benefit from the use of blockchain technology?

Blockchain might appeal to a group of ANSPs at regional level (e.g. through Functional Airspace Blocks (FABs) or industrial partnerships) or to individual ANSPs at local level. Regional cooperation lends itself to economies of scale, widespread data sharing and a more evenly distributed governance structure – in turn, this facilitates a greater atmosphere of trust amongst network participants, which is so important amongst ANSPs today. Meanwhile, local-level deployment could well be the answer to long-standing issues concerning information silos and fragmentation in data sharing and communications between neighbouring Area Control Centres (ACCs), where most interactions are still based on legacy voice- and paper-based processes. Imagine also an autonomous drones market for commercial and public purposes which has the potential to be extremely dynamic and time-sensitive, and heavily reliant on safety, security and speed – blockchain could well support some of these requirements.

Regardless of geographical scale or type of market, what's clear is that there are a number of exciting potential use-cases for deploying blockchain within ATM:

Considering the use of blockchain with other technologies, including disruptors such as machine learning, Internet of Things and space-based surveillance, will provide the best way to unlock the technology's real benefits. In turn, this could offer ANSPs, suppliers and new companies wishing to enter the market the opportunity to stimulate new business models to ensure they remain competitive, innovative and future-proof in an increasingly digitalised world of ATM.

To support this paradigm shift, ANSPs will need to evolve their strategies accordingly and explore the possibility of acquiring strategic partnerships with innovative companies; suppliers will need to think one step ahead to adapt and differentiate their offerings to the changing ATM market; and institutions and regulators will need to assess the impact of new disruptors and potential 'metamorphoses' on the entire aviation system. Blockchain is an exciting potential disruptor whose uses we don't fully yet know. But let's get the conversation going and begin exploring how this disruptor could be integrated into a future vision of ATM delivery.

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